random thoughts about dying churches

photo (18)every time i drive to adam’s house from mine, i pass this shuttered church as i turn into his neighborhood. it’s a fairly good-sized building, on a fairly prime piece of land, with thousands of people who see it every single day.

every time i see this sign, i experience a jumble of thoughts and emotions.

sometimes the feeling is sadness:
this church was in an amazing neighborhood. no, it’s not an amazing neighborhood if you’re hoping for homogeneous, white and affluent. but it’s a gorgeous neighborhood (rolando, the church bore the name of the neighborhood), with fantastic diversity in both economic and racial ways, plus a big dose of college students from nearby san diego state university. it’s mostly a family neighborhood, with mid-century small homes. right behind the church is a very large park that is always (i mean always — without exception) teeming with people, at all hours of the day and night.

but even with all the life in this neighborhood, this church closed. i don’t know the story. but i can certainly imagine one that include a dwindling and (literally) dying congregation of white octogenarians unwilling or incapable of being good news to their neighborhood. fear of change. refusal to change.

what a crappy way to die.

if this is the story, the church building is now just a big, ugly tombstone shouting out to the thriving neighborhood, “we didn’t care about you.”

sometimes i chuckle:
it’s dark humor, to be sure. but there’s some great irony in a closed church with “open doors” on its sign.

sometimes it makes me angry:
this response isn’t all that different than the sadness response. just a different place on the scale, i suppose.

sometimes i find it horribly convicting:
really, sometimes i can barely bring myself to drive by the stupid sign.

all the sadness and snarky-dark humor and anger: this is easy finger-pointing. it’s very natural for me to assume unwillingness or hard-heartedness or selfishness on the part of others. it’s simple to imagine the possible scenario above for two reasons: it’s so common, and i have a cynical finger-pointing heart.

the more dangerous question: in what ways am i living like that imaginary congregation? how am i undermining the “i don’t care about you” message that would result in an empty, closed building, in terms of my own faith and relationships and neighborhood and world?

33 thoughts on “random thoughts about dying churches”

  1. A quick search shows their Twitter account:


    It’s kind of sad you’d automatically assume this church had an old white guy problem (and you imply they may have been afraid or unwilling to embrace non-whites?) Churches close for many reasons. Why not look for the real reason why instead of assuming (and writing about) something so… unkind?

  2. well, first of all: my whole point was that i do NOT know the story, anonymous commenter. i can imagine one.

    but i clicked through on the the twitter account you linked to, and i started to laugh. the last tweet was a year ago. most of the tweets are announcements of member’s deaths.

  3. The North American church as a collective organization is on a trajectory to deconstruction. The only hope to cling to is that hell will not prevail in it’s decline. Rebuilding it’s branches from forgotten roots would be the best thing to come from it. I feel as though the best days are ahead of it if we are willing to accept that we must change.

  4. I am a Associate/Youth Pastor in a Methodist church. The closing of churches in our conferences seems to be a common occurrence. I do not know the story of Rolando UMC but too am saddened to hear of a church in a beautiful neighborhood that has closed. I think that although the UMC slogan is Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors many times we have sat in our churches with the doors open and expected people to come in, instead of going into all of the world. It is sad that the church has closed, but at the same time there is great opportunity there for a new congregation to be born there and to fully utilize its location and great neighborhood for bringing about God’s kingdom there!

  5. As a youth pastor in a UMC church, the empirical data tells us that the congregation was largely white, 73+ years old, and affluent (if not top 1%, then comparatively at the very least). Statistically, Rolando likely falls into the same category as a LARGE number of UMC churches that once occupied white, middle/upper middle class neighborhoods. We have one local church in a geographic situation EXACTLY as Rolando – it’s referred to as a “white flight” neighborhood. The few remaining members of the church are ALL older folks who grew up in the neighborhood, now living elsewhere, but drive in on Sundays and for the occasional “revival” where the same desperate prayers are offered up (here comes MY angry place on the spectrum after having been part of the music at several of their revivals). One pastor had the church feeding the neighborhood people free breakfast one day a week – they fed homeless folks, working folks, young, old, all ethnicities, nationalities, etc. – the church was STARTING to get in touch with the community despite the in-fighting and bickering over feeding people who “just didn’t want to work” or “wouldn’t give to the church.” That pastor was moved to another church several years ago, as is UMC custom. The membership continues to shrink (“death tsunami” is what the statisticians term it) and they are no longer serving the community in any way other than to boast open doors (they are only open on Sunday morning in one location in the building – otherwise the place is locked up like Fort Know lest an undesirable walk in).

    The mission of the church existed long before the church. So many congregations have ceased to be a community of faith; they are unplugged from their true mission Meanwhile the world waits for us to step up and Be His Church. I realize my story is anecdotal…perhaps our local white flight church and Rolando are the only ones (wait, no, there’s also Asbury and…..). Being the church doesn’t require a building but it does require a People. How wonderful it will be if a People steps into the Rolando campus and uses it as a staging ground for transforming the world.

  6. a couple additional comments:

    1. i hope no one thinks i was intending to slam on the UMC. not so. we’re all in this together.

    2. in response to joy’s comment above: one of the things that’s interesting in this case is that the neighborhood has not merely gone from being a white neighborhood to a black/hispanic/other neighborhood. it’s an extremely eclectic neighborhood. NOT the ‘hood. lots of families. adam and his family (as white as they come!) live in this neighborhood.

    i say all of that to bring out: this is not a race issue, or a “we have different musical styles” issue. at least it wouldn’t be in this location.

  7. Culture has changed. We are in a post Christian world. And yes, our approaches need to change to meet the needs of those in our communities.

    I read recently in a book that by the year 2020 100,000 of the 350,000 churces in North America will close — the demographics show that we have not successfully transmitted the Christian message from one generation to the next. We face the “death tsunami” as older church going folks ‘leave’ the church, and this leads to a vast drain of resources from the building and property heavy denominational churches.

    The “greatest generation” built the churches, their children (boomers) did not want what their parents created, and most gen x’ers and millenials grew up in churches that did not meet their emotional and spiritual needs.

    When I hear of churches dying, I wish people in those churches had some passion and imagination and love for their neighbors that had nothing to do with maintaining a building, and everything to do with meeting the needs of their community.

  8. thanks for posting this marko

    as you pointed out, we don’t know the story of this one but we do know the trends (as you and others pointed out)

    I remember an article from 5-10 years ago about a church with a similar story to the one you are assuming that fortunately in the end decided to gift their church to a church plant (of a different denomination/style) in need of a home…I wish dying churches would at least capture that vision, gift a paid for building to another ministry that can reach the neighborhood…what a great Church/Body mentality that would show and it sure beats having the building you poured blood, sweat and tears into becoming a disco (yes that is an old school Steve Taylor reference) or new housing

    hopefully this church/denomination, though this building is closed, is pursuing kingdom uses for their building even now

  9. Its interesting that some consider this a bad thing. Perhaps, this congregation cared little for God’s Word & His Glory. Perhaps God wants this “church” to die so a Gospel-centered church might take its place. One less UMC congregation to make way for a new church that will hold God & His Word high is not a tragedy. Yes, I really did say that.

  10. Pbj: a hand off at the end (a story I’ve heard many times) is a lovely and noble ending. But it’s almost akin to the genuinely lovely choice of organ donation after a lifetime of unhealthy living. I’m not saying all churches should last forever (though I’d be less reformed and “god willed it” than some comments). But however you slice it, whether you see this as natural or artificial, there was once a witness of Christ in this family neighborhood, and it’s now gone.

    Btw: debating who’s fault it was wasn’t really the point of the post.

  11. MarkO,
    Thanks for being so honest. As a pastor, I have ministered in several churches that were dying in the midst of a thriving community. I, too have experienced a range of emotions and am currently serving in a congregation that is in rapid decline due to many factors including those you cited and a congregational culture that has been too long characterized by unhealthy communication and dysfunctional relationships. Thankfully, I have also served a number of vital congregations that were struggling against the inertia of “it’s all about us”. You are right in that it is easy to point fingers and blame others. What we each need to do is ask whether our actions, attitudes, words and relationships are contributing to the Spirit’s work in the world and in the church.

  12. I was the pastor of this church at the time it closed. I was sent there to assist the congregation and the District in the assessment process about how this church would be faithful to our call to make disciples. Over the period of about a year, we looked at who the church was currently serving, what the possibilities were for that group of people to reach out in ministry in the nearby community, and what other options were available.
    With sadness, we realized that the church was no longer able to sustain itself or reach out in mission. The Rolando UMC was a vital presence in that community for 70 years. In the last months before closing, current and former members gathered to celebrate the ways Rolando had made a difference in people’s lives.
    To conclude our ministry, the church passed the legacy on to a new church start in Otay Ranch area as well as to 4 other United Methodist churches in East County. Almost all of the former members are now connected with new faith communities.
    Our hope in placing that sign was that the community would know that we continue to pray for them and remember with joy and sorrow our time in ministry in the community.
    Was it a perfect solution? No, but in this case, the closure seemed to be the wisest use of resources. After the sale of the property, money will be available to support other new church starts in the San Diego area and in the Annual Conference. In addition, the church members were able to identify 3 ministries that will receive a portion of the sales money as well as a set amount which will go to the Rolando Community to continue to support the work that they do.

  13. So to clarify – the neighborhood is termed white flight – that doesn’t mean no white folks live there. The neighborhood in my district is just as eclectic as you describe Rolando to be – however, the UMC church in that area is ignoring, missing, over looking that community. I’m sure it is overwhelmingly overwhelming to try and figure out how to reach all the different people – “our Rolando” would have to find a way to connect to opposite ends of the spectrum and EVERYTHING in the middle.

    Which begs another question: What sort of job am I doing to equip those I minister to to minister to others? Am I equipping those folks to shout “I care about YOU! Let me show you! And while I’m showing you how a Follower loves & lives, maybe I will even get to TELL you about this guy I know…” Sometimes I feel like I’m completely failing at it…

  14. Randa,
    Thank you for sharing the journey of this congregation. It takes a special set of gifts to lead a congregation to the decision to choose death in order that God might bring new life in new ways .

  15. I understand that people become attached to a building but I can’t relate as my parents moved around so much when I was a kid. I find the words you used “Dying Churches” interesting. I was raised Catholic and was used to attending large cathedral type edifices. My grandparents church, St. Ignatious in Cleveland, Oh, is huge and they told me “back in the day” it filled three services, including a basement area which ran three simultaneous services. I’ve seen it. It’s a big room down there (and kinda spooky). Now they might fill half a room with one service. Recently living in Tucson, AZ, I found you can drive down the road and count dozens of new, small chapels that might seat 50 people at a stretch. I think there is a shift happening. Religion is becoming more personal and less general. I think It’s ok to perhaps worship in a home or small chapel with a more intimate group. I guess what I’m saying is we shouldn’t look at a closed church necessarily that people are turning away from God. I look around and see the world becoming more spiritual and less religious, if you get my meaning. (or maybe they just blew it and had to close)

  16. This post and especially its comments are a great glimpse into our need for autopsy, evalutation, and redirection. Thanks so much for posting this picture and story, Marko. Its a shot in the arm for anybody who’s willing to be gut-level honest.

  17. I was a member of this church, off and on for over 50 years. It was my first church and my last church. The members were forced to find other faith communities and NONE of them are happy. This church HAD several thriving outreaches in the early 2000’s. The district transferred the pastor that sparked the growth and appointed one that drove off many of the “pillars” of the church. Many of us feel that it was a deliberate plan on the part of the distrcit to kill Rolando and use the money to attract a more affluent congregation in Otay Ranch.

    I, too, am saddened every day when I drive by the place where I met so many friends, my wife, and my Lord.

  18. At risk of sounding too defensive, I disagree with a part of what Alan “Moose” said. Yes, people were encouraged to find other faith communities. Not all of them are unhappy with the reality. SOME also felt that the best decision for the church was to close. The church membership DID have the opportunity to consider other options and to vote on the final decision. The reality is that many were unable to do any other ministry and the primary purpose of the facility was to host their Sunday worship services. The worship attendance averaged about 50 each Sunday while I was the pastor. At the end, I had a roster with 96 people on it and 39 of those were either out of town or affiliated with other churches and not attending regularly. Within 6 months of the closing, 5 people had died and 8 were in nursing homes or moved out of the area and no longer able to participate. I am very sad as well that the church needed to close, however I believe that the church is called to be more than a hospice for those who have always been there. Unfortunately, that was what Rolando had become. The remaining people didn’t have the energy or the vision to reach out and do new ministry. My predecessor had tried a variety of activities, but most were primarily supported by him and his family.

  19. Randa and Alan “Moose” — i appreciate both of you comments on this thread. and neither of you have been out of line. but i could see this becoming a thread about what happened at that church; and that’s not my desire, nor the point of the post, really. with that in mind: let’s leave it where it is, please.

  20. Thanks Marko for the reminder. I certainly don’t want to start a debate about a decision that was made over a year ago. I appreciate all the comments so far and agree that this discussion should move on.

  21. So, returning to MarkO’soriginal post–I pose this question: Where do we get the idea that local congregations should last forever?

  22. JJJ — i certainly don’t think there’s a biblical sense where a local congregation should last forever. and i believe that all human organizations have a natural life-cycle. re-invention and discerned change can bring new chapters, of course; and any church that closes its doors (just like any business that closes its doors) have missed many opportunities for that, often getting caught up in bureaucracy and entitlement. but i think the sadness for me (one of my many responses to that big empty building) is more about there being SOME vibrant community of faith in that community. i’m sure there are other churches in the area. but i’d love to see that building start to house a new, vibrant community that loves the neighborhood.

  23. Amen, MarkO. I raise the question because it seems that many operate from the assumption that particular local expressions of the church will last forever. It is sad when a congregation dies because of the memories and experiences attached to that congregation and because there is left a void which only a local expression of the church can fill. I think we need to be ore willing to acknowledge when churches are at the end of their lifecycle and provide a grace-filled way for them to give birth to something new.

  24. Thanks for this Marko. I was directed here from a link at the Catholic Youth Work site in the UK – I’m a youth worker over here. Here are some of my random thoughts on dying churches…

    It recalled for me the words of GK Chesterton who said something like this: The Church has gone to the dogs at least four or five times in history, and each time it’s the dog that died! I was also reminded of saints who, to all intents and purposes, lived secluded and seemingly “unfruitful” lives but who inspired incredible devotion in disciples and in the lives of many who followed them after they died. Jesus’ life also ended in apparent failure! I have hope!

    On what churches could/should be doing: it seems to me that “effective” or well-publicised outreach cannot be the ultimate yardstick by which we must judge whether a church is being properly church. Churches in certain parts of the world, for example, can’t be welcoming, missionary or evangelistic in the senses that we might understand in the West, because of threats of persecution or extinction – although that’s an extreme example of course.

    The heart of what church is should surely be the right worship of God, not how great or well-known our outreach programmes are. Now I know that one cannot worship God rightly if we are not manifesting that truth in some way through our lives to others (the activities are of course linked) but if we are not orientated toward God properly, what will our missionary activity be drawing people in to? (Jehovah’s Witnesses are an obvious example that missionary zeal can coexist alongside a faulty notion of God.) I’m with Chesterton – the world needs a good dose of orthodoxy. It makes us do the strangest things… even mission!

    Since we are approaching the Ascension of Our Lord, your picture above fits well with the mystery of Christ returning to the Father – “Good bye. God be with you” sounds very much like “I am going … you have been clothed with power from on high”, to clumsily quote the NIV! It was not a resignation speech, but a promise of greater things to come.

    I too must say good bye – God bless you all!

  25. Hi Marko! Interesting thoughts, but just a quick comment: I find this really hard to read because of the lack of capitalisation. It reads sloppily, as if you’re rushing through it without thought or care (I’m sure you’re not, but that’s the impression it gives). Just a bit of feedback as it detracts from the content. Or, is it a kind of e.e. cummings statement?

  26. It is what it is, Luke. I haven’t used capitalization on my blog for years. I suppose it’s a personal style thing for me!

  27. In my area three Southern Baptist Churches closed so new ones could be born. for years we failed to identify and serve our neighbors. We failed to be salt and light in the community. We got so wrapped up in the satanic panic of the 80’s and the moral crusades of the 90’s as well as legalism that we became ineffective. this has led to a vibrant sense of community and opened many doors to share the Good News with people the church normally is afraid of. This includes Goths, Gamers,Bikers, Artists, Writers, Skaters, Hip Hop fans, Metal heads and other groups disenfranchised by “American Churchianty”

  28. Sounds to me that the pastor did not do their job, and neither did the congregation. Good luck to the congregation who eventually buys the Rolando building and moves in.

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